Electoral rules rig results of Hungarian elections, warns Princeton’s Kim Lane Scheppele

March 19, 2018

Having fixed the rules of the game in its favor, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Fidesz will be returned to power on April 8th, says Princeton’s Kim Lane Scheppele.

“This is not a normal election with an organized opposition,” says the Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Sociology and International Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School in the US. “The government has fixed the rules of the game and the environment in which the elections take place.

“This is not going to be the kind of election when ballot boxes are stuffed. The action is in the rules that set up the system,” says Scheppele, adding that “the rules of the electoral system are written for this particular political space to ensure that only one political party could possibly win, and that’s the current governing party Fidesz.”

According to the expert on Hungarian politics and law, the April 8 election “is happening in a space that is not a free and fair space” in that “the governing party controls the media that most people see.”

She says the Orbán government has put the entire political opposition under pressure by arranging for the State Audit Office to strip them of their campaign funds “under the guise of enforcing election laws that have never been enforced before.”

The situation is compounded by the fact that the political opposition cannot get its act together in the face of electoral rules that “rig the results of the election.”

A little over half of the districts in the parliament are single-member districts that use the same “first past the post” rules as American congressional elections, explains Scheppele, adding that while there is nothing the matter with the rule in the abstract, in the political context of Hungary it ensures that Fidesz will win against a fragmented opposition.

She says that even though opinion polls show an overwhelming majority would rather have a different government, “the left can’t win because it’s not unified,” and “the right cannot win because the left is there.”

Scheppele says the problem is that the Hungarian electorate is divided over whether to replace Orbán and Fidesz with a government of the left or a government of the right. “In that system, Fidesz can win with this rule.”

The ghost in the machine

Scheppele points out that the task of election monitors is complicated by the fact that the election machinery itself is in the hands of the governing Fidesz-KDNP political alliance.

More important than what takes place at polling stations in Hungary is “what’s happening behind the scenes to tally the votes,” she says, pointing out that “Hungary has a complex election system.”

Hungarians cast two votes in parliamentary elections: one for their personal representative and one for a party. Out of 199 seats in parliament, 106 are filled by those directly elected. The remaining 93 seats are reserved for candidates who enter parliament from party lists.

Originally intended to enable smaller parties to enter parliament, the Fidesz-KDNP government turned this system on its head with the introduction of “winner compensation.”

Pioneered by Silvio Berlusconi in Italy to ensure that his large center-right party received a disproportionate number of parliamentary mandates thanks to a divided opposition, instead of giving smaller parties a disproportionate number of seats in parliament, “winner compensation” makes it possible for a party or political alliance receiving just 43 percent of the vote to receive two-thirds of the seats in parliament. This is precisely what happened in 2014.

But it gets worse.

“There’s some complicated math involved,” says Scheppele, observing that “nobody’s seen the algorithm” since the Fidesz government nationalized the company responsible for tabulating the election results. “Election monitors should ask to see a test of how this works,” warns the Princeton professor.

Impossible to verify returns from abroad

Another problem is the near-abroad vote.

Upon coming to power in 2010, the Fidesz-KDNP government gave Hungarian passport holders residing abroad the right to vote in Hungarian elections — and then proceeded to hand out 1 million passports to people living abroad of Hungarian descent.

Unlike Hungarian citizens temporarily residing abroad, Hungarian passport holders residing permanently abroad are allowed to mail their ballots in “or simply give their ballot to someone who promises to take it into the election office for them,” says Scheppele.

“There is no check that those ballots are coming from valid voters or that they haven’t been altered,” she says, observing that in 2014 such votes gave the Fidesz-KDNP alliance an additional 2 seats in parliament.

Incentivizing corruption

Scheppele says the nature and extent of EU development funds incentivizes the governments of net recipient member states to be corrupt. Eager to distribute those funds to their supporters, governing parties have a large incentive to “crash the democratic and oversight institutions,” warns Scheppele.

“The incentives are overwhelming,” she says.

“Under the current system, the EU gives out money, and then if there are complaints, OLAF investigates. But then it gives the portfolio to the government for prosecution. If the government is responsible for stealing the funds, they’re handing the case over to the criminals.”

The Princeton professor says the EU is starting to realize that the system “makes no sense” and wants legislation that will limit EU funds to countries that fall within the jurisdiction of the European public prosecutor created in the fall of 2017.

“Hungary is going to be faced with this choice. Either no more EU funds, or some authority to prosecute these crimes that isn’t under the government’s thumb.”

She says there are several proposals in the pipeline to cut funds from states that misuse EU funds, adding that “if I were Viktor Orbán, I would start looking around for alternative funding.”

Courting authoritarian regimes

She says Hungary’s so-called “Eastern Opening” has been a way for Orbán and the foreign ministry to conclude bilateral agreements with authoritarian regimes, the contents of which are secret, even though Hungary is supposed to notify the EU of these deals.

“We don’t know what Hungary is giving them. It has a seat at the table at the most exclusive clubs in the world, including EU and NATO,” observes Scheppele. “What are the other countries getting in exchange?”

Rule of law

Scheppele says that “the rule of law” has become a buzzword in the EU for problem countries.

“Hungary and Poland have begun the process of consolidating power of government by attacking the courts. The way the EU works is the enforcement of EU law through national courts. Once Orbán captured the Constitutional Court, and once judicial reforms put the careers of every judge in Hungary in the hand of one person, that’s problematic for the EU.

“How do we maintain a common legal space where you can count on all judges to equally enforce the law of the EU itself?”

In addition to cutting off development funds, the solution is to invoke Article 7 to suspend the voting rights of EU members failing to live up to their commitments as liberal democracies, says the professor of law. The problem is that invoking Article 7 requires a unanimous vote on the European Council. So long as Hungary and Poland have each other’s backing, the only way to impose sanctions on either country is to disqualify both countries that are the subject of Article 7 proceedings from voting on said proceedings.